TUPELO • The first time Debra Eubanks Riffe had her artwork exhibited in her native city, a collection of 15 needlepoint and paintings were on display.
Fifteen years later, Riffe returns to the GumTree Museum of Art as a relief printmaker whose works involve cultural and historical themes. Riffe’s exhibition opens Friday and will continue through Sept. 13.
The opening reception for Riffe will be Friday between 5 and 7 p.m. in the downtown Tupelo museum. The reception is open to the public.
Riffe, who resides in Birmingham, switched from needlepoint to relief printmaking because she likes the task of creating images through woodcuts and linoleum blocks.
“In relief printmaking you’re carving into the surface. Whatever is left on the surface is what captures the ink,” she said. “There are different modes of prints. I’m only interested in woodcuts and linoleum because of the challenge.
“Once you carve into a surface, you can’t go back and correct it. It is what it is,” Riffe adds. “There are little tricks that you can employ to incorporate that miscut into something else.”
Some of her previous needlepoint works are now featured as relief prints.
“I took some of the same images and transposed them into linoleum cuts,” she said. “Some of these you see are needlepoint tapestries.”
Tupelo family ties
Riffe and her three brothers were born in Tupelo and raised in Washington, D.C. She spent many summers and holidays visiting her Tupelo relatives, and even lived with her maternal grandparents, Hattie Pearl and T.R. Debro Sr., for four years while attending Carver High School.
After graduating from Carver in 1970 (the school’s final graduating class), she returned home to receive her BFA from Howard University’s College of Fine Arts.
“As a student at Howard, I was always interested in creating work that displayed African-Americans at home and at play,” Riffe said. “I sort of resented seeing caricatures of African-Americans, so I made it my goal to always create figurative works that was accurate in anatomy. I wanted to make sure if you looked at my imagery, you knew for a fact this was not a caricature.
“Everything you see is as real as I’m able to make it in linoleum and wood,” she adds. “The images also come from things I’m familiar with when I was growing up. I’m used to seeing children playing tug-of-war. The piece that says, ‘Give a man a fish’ is something I’ve heard all my life.”
Riffe has been a professional graphic designer and artist for more than 30 years. She has traveled extensively and lived abroad for five years in Colombia. Her works have been featured in numerous venues and she’s won many awards.
While working as a graphic designer for the city of Birmingham, Riffe became interested in the city’s Civil Rights campaign of 1963. It was a turbulent time when marchers were attacked with high-pressure water streams and dogs. Later that year, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four girls.
“1963 was a pivotal year for the Birmingham Civil Rights movement,” she said. “I’ve been in Birmingham since 1996 and I just became really interested in knowing not just the history but getting to know the people who were involved in the movement.”
Riffe’s prints not only include Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, but also the “foot soldiers” of the campaign so she could tell their stories through her art.
“I wanted to know more about the foot soldiers, the people who participated in the marches. People like Colonel Stone Johnson, who was the bodyguard for Rev. Shuttlesworth,” she said. “I continue to meet those people who live there and were a part of it.”
Riffe can’t help but share the irony about where she worked in Birmingham’s city hall before he retirement. She said her office space was in the same spot occupied in 1963 by Bull Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety who ordered the attacks on the marchers.
“I love telling people that Bull Connor is probably flipping in his grave,” she said.
Sally Kepple, GumTree Museum of Art director, is glad Riffe’s works are featured once again in the Tupelo museum.
“The work she’s done is so beautiful and well executed,” she said. “I want everyone to come out and welcome home Debra.”
Riffe often drives from Birmingham to see family and friends in Tupelo and to visit the grave sites of her mother and grandparents.
“People ask, ‘Where’s your home,’ and I say, ‘My brothers live in D.C., but my heart is in Tupelo’,” Riffe said.